by Professor String
|What's the real scoop on archtop guitar strings?||
As I have written before, the guitar string market has become a complex maze of hype and technology. Even the professionals get confused about the various string terms being used lately. We are going to get to the bottom of what archtop strings are all about in this article. But first, here is a real world example of what is happening out in the music stores.
I recently heard the following comments at a music store:
Customer: We just bought my son his first guitar, and it's a (mentions model) guitar. What strings do we need?
Sales Associate: Oh, that's an archtop guitar...you need a set of archtop strings. Let's go on the light side since he is just starting.
Unfortunately, the sales associate did not briefly explain what an "archtop" string set was all about. He simply swiped the debit card, handed over the strings, and the customer left with a big smile. From a business perspective...mission accomplished. From a guitar mentoring perspective, this little transaction did not help matters. What did he give the customer? Better yet, what would YOU have handed this customer?
For guitarist familiar with hollow body guitars, the notion of archtop strings brings an image of a set of strings that are flatwound with a wound third string. However, there are plenty of archtop players who use round wounds, there are also plenty of archtop players using a plain third string. If you buy one of the mass produced archtops being made today, odds are likely it has a round wound set with a very light gauge set of strings. In addition, alloy composition does not necessarily constitute an archtop set of strings. Some archtop guitars are strung with nickel based alloys. Yet, others are stainless steel.
So, what is an archtop set? Here is the answer…
I remember talking with jazz guitarist Vic Juris many years ago, and he mentioned using a heavy plain gauge E string on his guitar. How heavy? A finger busting 0.018 gauge! Vic went on to mention the guitar had a very “dead” top and needed a little more energy transfer through the bridge to get the tone he needed. Folks, this is the very heart of the answer. An archtop set of strings is a ferromagnetic set that produces enough vibrational energy to transfer through a floating bridge, and make the top distribute the energy to create sound pressure within the guitar’s body. In other words, archtop sets have more string mass and work with a magnetic pickup. They are sets that start with at least a .012 plain E. They often will have a wound third string simply because the entire set is heavier in mass. The heavier strings work to create a stronger signal to transfer through the guitar body with a bridge that is not mounted to the top (aka. Floating bridge). Good luthiers understand how the string signal distributes across an arched top guitar versus a flat top acoustic guitar. They also understand how the dynamics of a pickup come into the design.
Some of you might be thinking, “Hey, don’t acoustic sets follow this same principle of needing the extra mass, as they are often heavier with a wound third string?” The answer is: Yes. Acoustics and archtops are in the same family of guitar as they both utilize sound pressure produced from within the body. What’s the difference in strings? Alloy. Most acoustics do not leverage the magnetic properties of a string. The archtop guitar needs strings that can be detected by a magnetic pickup. So, that’s why we have archtop strings with steel and nickel alloys while acoustic sets leverage brass, bronze, phosphor, nylon…etc. However, both types of strings sets can have similar gauging.
Notice that an archtop set has nothing to do with being round wound, semi-round, or flat wound? This is the popular misconception. Wrap wire shapes DO affect the overall tone, but have little to do with the need for vibrational energy transfer on an archtop guitar. It’s easy to think of flat wound sets being considered archtop strings, but they are not. The flat wound string sets are often found on archtops due to many players seeking a darker and less brighter sound. In contrast, acoustic flat wound sets are virtually non-existent. The goal of the acoustic string set is to get lots of clear sound projection without being amplified. The round wrap wire is the string design of choice to accomplish that goal. The brighter tone from the round wound set helps the upper frequencies cut through acoustically. The archtop has a magnetic pickup to help accomplish this sonic task.
Let’s consider the guitar’s top (aka. soundboard) for a moment.
The guitar top is often a subject near and dear to many acoustic players and archtop owners. Archtops are perhaps the only instruments that rely on their top for tone shaping more so than sound projection. Okay, okay…I can hear you acoustic players saying, “Whoa! Wait a minute…” Let me explain this statement. Many high end archtops use a laminate top. At the same time many high end archtops also use a solid top. What’s the difference? Mainly tone. It’s no secret, some of the best sounding archtops sound horrible acoustically. The focus of archtop design is often getting a pickup-string-body-top combo to work together for a particular tone…without having to worry about acoustic sound projection (unlike the acoustic guitar). Some archtop builders may have a different design philosophy, but most will have some agreement with that prior statement. Remember earlier we quoted Vic saying his guitar had a “dead” top? In this case, the top was laminated. The string objectives were to use a very heavy gauge string set to push more vibrational energy into the laminates of the top. In other words, he wanted to get more acoustic sound pressure out of a guitar body that did not project easily. Why not use a solid top rather than a heavy string set? Again, the objectives are focused on tone. An archtop set is perfect for this task.
Now you know the real scoop on archtop strings. The next time you hear this reference, you will know exactly what it means in the string world.
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